Caught between the Burmese majority and invading China, the Shan language is dying. But the Shan speakers at Muse’s border trading post are fighting decline, running classes, and instilling pride in their literature, history, and culture.
Sai Myat Aung, secretary of the Shan Literature and Culture Committee, said Muse, with its 450,000 inhabitants, could be the scene of the language’s last struggle if left unchecked.
“Anyone who wants to work in this city has to learn Chinese. At this rate, our mother tongue will disappear, ”he said.
Since 1990, the committee has organized Shan language courses and now has 155 students who have successfully registered. But the teachers are not paid and can only teach in the evening.
“We only speak Shan at home, and with other Shan speakers. Some Shan who do not speak our language are ashamed and want to study. They also wear our traditional clothes and carry Shan bags, ”he said.
In Shan State, there are only two local language newspapers, Shan Ping and Shan Than Taw Sint. The language was banned in 1989 and purged from textbooks, accelerating its decline.
Local businesses, 80% Chinese-owned, offer Mandarin speaking and writing lessons to Burmese citizens wishing to work in the city.
“Almost all of Muse’s children take Chinese lessons from 6 am to 8 am. They go to school between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., and have more Chinese lessons from 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. From 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., they have extra lessons in school yards. It doesn’t leave much time to study Shan, ”said Sai Toom Khao, co-secretary of the committee. Volunteers on the committee run summer schools and Sunday schools, which also teach traditional arts like arranging fruits and flowers.
They mark the Shan New Year with Shan poetry and essay readings, traditional Shan groups, and flower and fruit decorating competitions.
“Literature courses aroused the interest of the surrounding villages. Some parents send their children to study, ”said Sai Toom Kham, who said the language showed little local variation in pronunciation, tone and spelling.
In an effort to promote the language more widely, Shan youth are organizing literary discussion groups and speech contests in churches and monasteries. The prospect of a new government next year has raised hopes for curriculum changes across the country that would encourage the study of ethnic languages.
Sai Lao Hlaing Pan, a volunteer Shan teacher since 2007, said he was encouraged by the interest of Shan youth not only in the language, but also in traditional songs, poems and culture.
“Most of the old Shan are not educated, although they can write and read a little. But they can do poems and songs to sing while they work, pick tea leaves, ”said Sai Lao Hlaing Pan, who teaches in the evening after work.
“In the past, we would go to small villages and teach by candlelight. Things are better now and more and more students want to teach the language themselves, ”he said.
Nang Nwan Nwant Kham, bound for Mandalay University with four distinctions, says she is proud to be a Shan with a great literary history.
“I have spoken Shan since I was a child – it’s the only language we speak at home. I studied literature at the monastery. The story is so interesting, ”she said.